These inmates are all business
BRYAN, Texas – His street name was “T-Murder”; his turf, the Deadly Nickel, as Houston’s Fifth Ward is known in the ‘hood. His business put $25,000 in his pocket monthly.Those were the days when Thomas Laquea Harrell Sr. ran his own crack cocaine ring, a capital venture that landed him in the Texas prison system with a 25-year sentence. Seven years of incarceration later and a few weeks from being paroled, this entrepreneur is ready to go back to work. But he’s going legit.Harrell has a written business plan, a marketing strategy, a net profit/loss analysis, a projected income statement and a financial summary. All he needs, Harrell recently told a panel of business executives gathered inside the walls of the medium-security Hamilton Unit, is a start-up loan.”Hello, my name is Thomas Harrell Sr., the founder and owner of Yum Yum’s Mobile Catering Service,” the animated 31-year-old inmate announced. “We make hot, on-the-spot barbecue meals.”This was Harrell’s pitch for his new business, one of 60 similar plans presented by the graduates of an unusual Texas prison program designed to harness a convict’s street smarts and funnel them into a legitimate venture upon release.’Leveraging their skills'”We are not so much in the business of creating entrepreneurs as leveraging their skills,” said Catherine Rohr, founder of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit organization based in Houston. “After all, it was their entrepreneurial skills that landed them in prison.”I thought I was going on a zoo tour of caged-up animals,” recalled Rohr, 29, of that first visit to a prison in Sugar Land, Texas. “Instead, I saw human beings who are just as much in need of grace as I am, and I saw all this untapped potential, good sales skills and decent business sense.”Rohr has instituted a rigorous business curriculum: more than 350 hours of class time, taught by 100 business executives whom she recruits; exams; extensive writing assignments; and tough homework penalties for inmates who do anything from utter a curse word to fail a test. Prisoners are paired with Harvard and Texas A&M University students, online or in person, who help edit their business plans. The executives then judge the plans.First, though, inmates must qualify for PEP, as the program is known. They must have renounced any prison gang affiliation and must fill out a 23-page questionnaire, learn 10 pages of financial terminology, take four tests and be interviewed by almost a dozen corporate executives and PEP graduates. Important as the tests and interviews are, Rohr said, “the number one thing we look for in inmates is change.”220 graduatesIncluding this class, PEP has graduated 220 participants, and 175 have been released from prison. Rohr said 21 former inmates have started or operate small businesses. Almost 40 have completed PEP’s post-prison executive course offered in Houston and Dallas and are being mentored by corporate executives. The employment rate among PEP graduates is over 93 percent, she said, and the recidivism rate has been less than 5 percent.For many executives, the experience was transformative as well. Geoff Jones, chief financial officer of Trico Marine Services of Houston, conceded he was apprehensive when he first entered the prison. “You think you’re going to go in there and feel unsafe and be surrounded by undesirables,” he said.Instead, Jones said, he was impressed by the quality of the business plans and the presentations. “They believed in what they were telling you, and it meant a lot to them. It was their chance to impress somebody in the free world,” he said.